The Academic Bucket List: A Retrospective

The Academic Bucket List: A Retrospective

By: Andrea Hillock-Dunn, AuD, PhD University of North Carolina
Although it may not always seem it, the time spent getting a PhD is fleeting. In the scope of a career, half a decade is brief. While short, this phase is critically important because it prepares the burgeoning scientist to embark on a career in teaching, industry, or research.

So how do you pave the way to professional success and fulfillment? Create an academic bucket list. List all the things you hope to do before completing your PhD – before you kick the figurative academic bucket and transition from graduate student to Doctor of Philosophy. I’ve shared my own retrospective bucket list below, but encourage you to make your own. Envision the job you hope to have and draft a list of things that will help you build the foundation needed to achieve your ideal career. Read and revise it periodically to keep up with your evolving views of the type of job you desire and to help you maintain the focus needed to achieve your goals.

Things to do before starting your PhD:

  1. Get involved in research. Do a Capstone project or volunteer in a research laboratory. It’s attractive to universities and programs and can help you decide if getting a PhD is for you.
  2. Study prospective programs and mentors. Read recent published manuscripts from department faculty, investigate funding status, resources, etc.
  3. Visit your top schools and meet with students and prospective advisors. When choosing a university and a lab, the laboratory environment and mentor-mentee relationship should be key factors in your decision.

Things to do while getting your PhD:

  1. Make a checklist with the requirements for degree conferral and a timeline including anticipated dates for completing each item. Post your timeline somewhere visible. Try to adhere to the deadlines you’ve set, or your journey will take much longer than you anticipated.
  2. Along with your mentor, design research studies that are focused and manageable. The goal during this phase of training is to learn how to do quality research; bigger questions can be answered later.
  3. Learn Matlab or a similar computer programming language. It is a highly marketable skill and a powerful data collection, management, analysis and graphing tool.
  4. Once you have data, write, revise, write… It has to happen, and it will get easier. Also, remember to request feedback from mentors and peers and be prepared for lots of rewriting.
  5. Take advantage of university and professional workshops on teaching, grantsmanship, etc. Your schedule may seem packed now, but it will become even busier in the years to come.
  6. Attend conferences where you can showcase your work, gain feedback from others, and network with scientists, students and industry professionals.
  7. Write a grant. Even if it doesn’t get funded, the exercise of submitting will give you an appreciation for the process and expectations. Plus, the feedback you receive could help strengthen your research project(s). Side Note: Wait for a year or two after entering your program – until you’ve started developing ideas and have more knowledge of the research process.
  8. Start job hunting and soul searching well before you approach graduation. What are your favorite things to do? Seek out positions with your desired balance of job related duties (e.g., teaching, research, clinic). Spread the word that you are in your dissertation phase. Scan job boards and email university faculty about potential postdoc opportunities. If they don’t have funds, consider writing a grant. Make sure you’ve left enough time for this.
  9. Have fun throughout the journey. Attempt to create and maintain work-life balance, otherwise life will pass you by!